A recent post from Patti Abbott has got me thinking about kitchens. When you think about it, kitchens are a central part of just about any home. Those who do most of their cooking and eating at home spend quite a bit of time in the kitchen. And even those who eat out more often still use their kitchens.
Kitchens have also come to represent home, sometimes warmth, and family. They’re crucial to a lot of homes, so it makes sense that they also play a major role in crime fiction. Plenty of conversations are held there, and that’s not to mention the dangers of domestic havoc in the kitchen…
In the days when well-to-do people had their own staffs (and this still happens in a few cases), there was a lot of activity in the kitchen, especially when there were big events at the house. Agatha Christie provided several glimpses into that life in her stories. In The Hollow (AKA Murder After House), for instance, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell host a weekend house party that ends in murder. One of their guests, Dr. John Christow, is shot on the Sunday afternoon. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch, and when he arrives, he sees the murder scene. He works with Inspector Grange to find out who killer is. As you can imagine, the police interview everyone, including the kitchen staff. At one point, one of the kitchen maids tells the police about something she saw. When the butler/head of the staff, Gudgeon, finds out, he and the cook, Mrs. Medway, take turns raking her across the proverbial coals for talking to the police. And it’s made clear that a ‘mere’ kitchen maid has no business talking to anyone except her immediate superior unless she’s spoken to first. The conversation takes place in the kitchen, and it gives readers a sense of what life was like there at a certain time. You’re absolutely right, fans of A Murder is Announced.
Arthur Upfield’s The Bushman Who Came Back begins on an Australian ranch called Mount Eden, which is owned by Mr. Wooten. One tragic day, his housekeeper, Mrs. Bell, is found shot in the kitchen. Her seven-year-old daughter, Linda, has gone missing, and there’s an exhaustive search for her. But at first, nothing turns up. There is evidence that a bushman named Ol’ Fren’ Yorky was at the ranch and could have abducted Linda. No-one wants to believe that is guilty, because he’s well-liked and popular. But he has to be found. Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte of the Queensland Police is called in to investigate, and he finds that there’s more than one possible explanation for the murder. But he’s going to have to use all of his tracking skills to find a bushman like Yorky, who can seemingly melt away into the bush.
In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Joanna Eberhart and her husband, Walter, move with their children from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They’ve heard that it’s a good place to raise children, that the schools are high-quality, and the taxes are low, so they’re hoping it’ll be a good move. And at first, it is. But little by little, Joanna’s new friend, Bobbie Markowe, begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe her. But then, some unsettling things begin to happen. At one point, for instance, Walter has brought some of his new friends over to the house, and Joanna is in the kitchen, making coffee. One of the guests comes into the kitchen and starts chatting. On the surface, it’s a perfectly innocent conversation. But there’s a real layer of unease, and Levin uses the incident to hint at what’s to come later.
In Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, private detective Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver goes undercover as a maid in the home of Walburga ‘Lollie’ and Philip ‘Pip’ Balfour. Lollie believes that her husband is going to kill her, and she wants to prevent that if possible. As a maid, Dandy spends her share of time in the kitchen, which is ruled by Kitty Hepburn, he cook. Shortly after Dandy starts work, Pip is murdered. She works with the police to find out who the killer is. In the process of finding out the truth, Dandy gets to know the various members of the household, and it’s interesting to see how important role the kitchen plays in this story.
Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders takes place at the home of Hilla Driver, which she has recently inherited from an uncle. Hilla has planned a housewarming party to which she has invited a number of Mumbai’s ‘glitterati.’ The main event of this party is to be a very special seven-course banquet to be prepared by her chef, Tarok Ghosh. Among the guests are Hilla’s friend, former Mumbai police detective Lalli, and Lalli’s niece. On the night of the banquet, Tarok presents a custom-made appetizer to each guest, and those appetizers hint at secrets the guests are keeping. More than that, they hint that Tarok knows those secrets. Late one night, Tarok is bludgeoned in his kitchen. And just about everyone in the house had a motive for murder. Lalli and her niece work with the police to find out who the killer is, and it turns out that this murder is connected to another murder.
Of course, fictional kitchens can also be warm, friendly, ‘family’ places. Just check Lisa Scottoline’s Mary DiNunzio series, and Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series. Whether they’re the setting for very tense scenes or for really uplifting scenes, kitchens play a big role in crime fiction. Thanks, Patti, for the inspiration. Now, folks, do give yourselves a treat and go visit Patti’s excellent blog. And try her crime fiction, too!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Robert Johnson.